Historical ‘Anti-Haitianism’ and the Rulings of the Dominican Constitutional Court

By Scott Freeman, Visiting Scholar

The Constitutional Court decision made by the Dominican Republic two weeks ago is the most recent of the ongoing rulings that affect Haitian citizenship in the country (Reuters, BBC). The law stipulates that individuals of foreign descent born after 1929, the vast majority of whom are Haitian, could have their Dominican citizenship revoked. Such denationalization comes with heavy prices: schooling, voting privileges, social services, and health provision all hang in the balance for hundreds of thousands of Haitian descended Dominicans. Advocacy groups and scholars, as well as multilateral organizations (Unicef, Amnesty International) have vocalized and mobilized opposition to the ruling.

This decision is the latest in a string of policies and rulings that have slowly legalized the systematic exception of Dominicans born of Haitian descent. In the 1929 constitution, children of foreigners born in the Dominican Republic could receive citizenship. However, a clause excluding foreigners “in transit” has been used more and more to deny Haitian citizenship. Historically, Haitians workers have been brought to the Dominican Republic as migratory laborers for the sugar cane industry. By the 2000s, many government offices were increasingly rejecting Haitian citizenship claims, arguing that all Haitians were “in transit” (IACHR 2010). In 2004, a general law on migration created a descent-based law of citizenship, effectively making parents’ migration status an inheritable trait. Circular 017, issued by the Junta Central Electoral, instructed civil registry officers not to expedite requests that related to ‘irregular’ birth certificates. Haitian-Dominicans requesting copies of their birth certificates were subject to lengthy investigations, as their phenotypical ‘Haitianess’ made their birth certificates ‘suspect’. Those who had never previously questioned their Dominican nationality were now considered ‘irregular’ and were unable to attain legal documents. As a result, many children were effectively made stateless, a condition imported into the new constitution of 2010.

Yet among the current calls for reform, there has been little coverage of the historical antecedents that have made these rulings a political possibility. My fear is that without tracing the historical and ideological lines that have produced contemporary anti-Haitian movements, the most recent event will be uncritically entered into an unproductive back and forth that been waging over the past twenty or so years. If instead we examine the origins and uses of these ideas, we expose how discourses and actions of anti-Haitianism have been used politically. I argue (in the tradition of the scholar below) that such decisions are not the result of some timeless island-wide conflict, but rather the insidious political mobilizations of various groups of Dominican elites. Such discourses attempt to silence more harmonious Haitian-Dominican interactions that have simultaneously existed across the island.

The conflicts between Haiti and the Dominican Republic do not, as they have often been represented, permeate the history of the island. Pop-historical texts (Wucker 2000) paint the island as ensnared in a fatalistic conflict based on Haiti’s occupation of the Dominican Republic. However, important counter-scholarship (Moya Pons 1978, Martinez 2003) has argued that Haiti’s brief rule over the eastern portion of the island has not been the root of long standing animosities. In the early 20th century, for example, an anti-Haitian sentiment did not permeate the border region shared with Haiti. Rather, the area was characterized by a high degree of intimacy and integration (Turits 2002).

In fact, the Dominican countryside was not the source of virulent anti-Haitianism. Rather, since the late 1800s, elite Dominicans in urban centers had been crafting a Dominican identity and state based on anti-Haitianism (San Miguel 1997). Such elites demonized the Haitian influence as one that would conflict with their own Eurocentric vision of modernity and progress. These intellectuals, trained abroad during the age of racist scientific discourses, rose to positions of prominence in the Trujillo regime (1930-1961) and continued sounding the horns of a ‘pacific invasion’ from Haiti (Turits 2002, Derby 1994). Such intellectual currents dovetailed with the effects of US interventions. Beginning in 1907, the United States took over Dominican customs houses for the repayment of outstanding loans. Customs houses along the border introduced a fixed and supervised border, attempting to solidify the otherwise nebulous state for purposes of trade regulation. In so doing, relations between Dominicans and Haitians became newly commodified and differentiated. Such a process of commodification and nation building reified difference along the border (Derby 1994).

It was under the Trujillo regime that twenty to fifty thousand Haitians were killed in the 1937 massacre on the Haitian-Dominican border. Such an event might be cited as key moment of growing foment among the Dominican population.

However, important historical work has shown that the massacre was not the result of violence and racism- it was the catalyst (Turits 2002). As the border between the two countries was still pacific and porous, it posed a threat to Trujillo, who was interested in fostering a strongly monitored, modern, and centralized state. With the massacre came a definitive division between the border populations and distinct boundaries and allegiances to the Dominican state that Trujillo hoped for. As Turits puts it, the massacre is “a story of how multiethnic communities and shifting, complex, or ambiguous national identities come to be perceived a problem for the state.”

Such moments allow us to understand how such anti-Haitian thought and action are part and parcel of political manipulations and state-building projects. More recent waves of deportation have been interpreted as calculated attempts at moving attention away from social and economic demands unmet by politicians. The cries of a ‘pacific invasion’ that occurred 1907 and the mid 1920s are continually propelled forward by elites and scholars that follow this intellectual lineage. Current well-reputed Dominican academics continue to give talks that re-articulate the conspiratorial arguments of the turn of the 20th century.

Yet positive Dominican-Haitian relationships have an equally long history. Religion, language, and even labor practices have flowed across the island, indicating intimately shared historical experiences and practices. Alternative accounts of day to day life present Haitian and Dominicans working side by side, exchanging a mélange of Spanish and Kreyol. While Dominican elites have envisioned a nation of European whiteness, Afro-Dominican scholars, intellectuals, and artists have presented counter narratives of African cultural heritages and an embrace of blackness (see Torres-Saillant 1998). Current intellectual movements, led by Dominican and Haitian scholars engaged in the Transnational Hispaniola movement, articulate equally powerful arguments of harmony.

Without a doubt, conflict and cooperation have always been part of the complex history of Dominican and Haitian relations, as noted by a previous post on the Focus on Haiti blog. The brief synopsis of intellectual currents does not do justice to the intricate complexities of such histories. But by understanding the historic uses of anti-Haitianism, we can begin to question the political motives that underpin legal and political discourses as well as intellectual currents. Many challenges to Dominican citizenship laws have been and continue to be made on the basis of international human rights. But we would be well served by exposing anti-Haitian thought for what it is within the Dominican political sphere.

One thought on “Historical ‘Anti-Haitianism’ and the Rulings of the Dominican Constitutional Court

  1. After the publishing of the orignal post, The New York Times featured a letter to the editor by the Ambassador of the Dominican Republic, Anibal De Castro, in response to an article criticising the D.R. for leaving ethnic Haitian citizens stateless. The following day, a letter to the editor in response was written by prominent Haitians Mark Kurlansky, Junot Diaz, Edqidge Danticat, and Julia Alvarez. The full letters can be found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/01/opinion/two-versions-of-a-dominican-tale.html?src=recg&_r=1&.

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